The Story and the Plan

“Will I ever get married?” is a question I’ve always asked myself but rarely ever felt the answer wasn’t somehow definite. I knew I would get married, buy a house, have kids, and all that jazz because it was going to happen. Of course it would, how could it not?

It may sound silly to you if you’ve never adhered to this before, but separating yourself from this idea of pre-destination, whether for the afterlife or the random tediums of your everyday life, is extraordinarily difficult.

I don’t know how I started to believe in the idea that my whole life was already set out before me, but somehow I did. I think it had to do with my understanding of God: since God knows everything, He must know what happens next (after all, Jesus knew He was going to die and resurrect, plus He knew all this random stuff about people’s personal lives). If God knows what happens next, then it must be set in stone, therefore everything is pre-ordained and there’s no way to change it.

Spiritually speaking, this is kind of a comfort. It takes everyday Christian phrases like “God’s in control” and “everything happens for a reason,” and re-contextualizes them as confirmation that everything is fixed. In theory, this should help you to relax, knowing God’s got this, no need to fret about what tomorrow will bring (another Biblically-inspired phrase that takes on much greater significance in this light). But, for me personally, and, as I only found out years later, many others, this only served to heighten my already deeply-entrenched feelings of anxiety and self-loathing.

See, when everything is fixed, it means what you do has no consequence. When you hate yourself and think you can do nothing right, this starts out as uplifting, because you know no matter how much a screw-up you are and no matter how many times you ruin everything, all the time, like you always do, things will work out well in the end. But that notion that everything will turn out OK no matter what you do helps to reinforce this idea that you, yes you, idiot, can offer nothing of worth, can do nothing of value, and that God has taken control of the universe solely to fix your many, many mistakes. You stupid, idiot.

So this was my entire teenage experience, in a nutshell. I wasn’t incredibly popular, I wasn’t terribly smart, and everything I did was awful and everything good that ever happened only happened in spite of, not because of, my own efforts. Basically I was a complete loser put in a group project with God, who was incredibly pissed-off at my ignorance and passive-aggressively did the whole project Himself, no thanks to my dumb ass.

I can’t really describe what it’s like to spend literal years wholeheartedly believing this about yourself; believing you didn’t deserve anything good, you would never amount to anything by your own merit, but that somehow you’d end up married with kids and eventually go to heaven. And the juxtaposition of knowing I was horrible but would somehow have a happy life in the future (or, at least, I would have everything I needed to be happy but would likely not be able to enjoy it, due to my depression and anxiety, which, I must stress, I wholly blamed on myself) once again cemented my belief that I didn’t deserve anything nice but would somehow get nice things just so I could feel guilty about how I didn’t deserve them.

Have you ever been given anything out of spite? Or received something you know the giver didn’t enjoy giving, but they had to anyway? It’s a hard feeling to describe, but no matter how nice the thing they’ve given you is, you can never truly enjoy it. If you’re a relatively mentally healthy person, the gift would be soured by the negative emotions attached to it. If you really, really hate yourself, then you will blame yourself that the other person is upset and the gift will forever serve as a reminder of your absolute failure as a person.

Now imagine you haven’t gotten the gift yet, but you know it’s coming and you anticipate how you will blame yourself, then you feel bad that you’re getting something nice but you won’t be grateful or happy about it so you get angry at your sorry ass and how you can’t even enjoy something that hasn’t even happened yet and it’s not even about you, because you certainly don’t deserve nice things like a loving wife and beautiful children so obviously those things will only happen in spite of you; your wife will marry you because she deserves to be happily married even though she doesn’t deserve to be married to you you sack of crap and your kids deserve a loving household but they won’t get it because you won’t be able to be a dad because you’ll be sitting around feeling sorry for yourself and how you can’t enjoy anything even your own children so that will be bad for the children and now everyone is suffering in this future that hasn’t even happened yet and it’s all because of you.

Again, I don’t remember a specific point at my life where I started believing any of this—the self-hatred or the pre-destined life of happy misery—but I know it was reinforced and went unchallenged through most of my faith life. If I’m honest, I think a lot of churches, Christian schools, and faith communities are reinforcing this idea of predestination even if they don’t know they’re doing it. I can’t tell you how many pastors, teachers, churchgoers, and relatives in my life have pushed this idea that everything would work out in my life (and others’) because “God has a plan for you,” and “everything happens for a reason.”

Those may seem like nice sentiments, but I think they do a lot more harm than good, especially for those going through struggles; not just mental health problems, but getting divorced when your relationship was supposed to last for decades, being abused and told it’s normal, being rejected because of who you are, or losing a member of your family too soon and having to keep living the rest of your life without them.

There are so many types of suffering that go unacknowledged in the church today. I think this is in large-part because it threatens our own idea of things turning out perfectly, that everything is predestined in our lives. When someone goes through something unimaginable—like suddenly getting a disease or infirmity you’ll have for the rest of your life, a loved one taking their own life because they couldn’t handle the pain anymore, or having a trusted and beloved member of the family cause untold damage to the ones they were supposed to protect—it threatens this idealized future we want, need to hold on to.

So the only condolences many people who haven’t gone through the unthinkable will offer to those who have is “everything happens for a reason” and “God’s in control,” not because that will help the person in need, but because it helps the person offering these words and makes it seem like there is an order and a plan to the horrible, horrible chaos of life.

And to be offered this kind of sentiment when you already struggle against your own mind again and again is devastating. “All this will work out OK, it was supposed to happen.”

I had… a very hard time finding people to talk to when my engagement fell apart. I knew I couldn’t blame myself for my partner’s infidelities, but as more and more people tried to tell me I’d “find someone else someday,” that “everything will work out fine,” and that “God has a plan,” without any real commiseration or empathy, the self-loathing, anxiety, and depression I thought I had gotten rid of after reaching adulthood came back with a vengeance.

I felt like I must have finally done something to unhinge this perfect future I was finally starting to believe I could enjoy. Like God had finally given up and left me with my mess. I knew this couldn’t be true, I knew God wasn’t like that, but every time I would go to church or Bible study over the next year, I would keep seeing happy people talking about how great their own lives were going, how God had had a plan for their lives, and how things would turn out OK for me… somehow.

So I stopped going to church, because it became so hard for me to stand and sit in service every week and have every sermon, song, and conversation insist things were gonna be fine when all I wanted was someone to scream from the rooftops that no, everything was not fine and life in general kind of sucks sometimes.

I never knew how badly I needed it until someone finally told me, in more or less the same words, that there was no guarantee everything would work out, that everything would somehow head towards this inevitable conclusion of perfect happiness and that yes, my frustrations, sadness, and general emotional state were in fact healthy to have and needed to be expressed.

I can’t tell you how freeing it felt to have someone tell me there was no predestined plan for my life and that it wasn’t all going to work out. It was as if massive weight on my shoulders was suddenly filled with helium.

It still has taken years to untangle the mess of self-berating my mind has coiled itself into for… who knows how many years. And I’m still untangling it, still loosening the vice-grip of self-abuse I’ve latched onto my person. But so much of that trap I’ve been stuck in was reinforced by this idea that that was the way it had to be, that it was inevitable and part of “the plan.”

I’ve never quite articulated this before, but I think I felt, for a very long time, trapped in my own life. It had only one direction, it had specific expectations—ones given to me and ones I imposed on it myself—and it had certain limitations on who I was, who I could be, and what I could never be. And through the struggles with mental health, that trap became smaller and smaller, as I hated on myself to the point of depression and felt depressed to the point of anxiety and felt anxious to the point of hating myself all the more.

And feeling that there was a logical endpoint to it all, whether I wanted to get there or not, that was defined for me ahead of time, made the whole affair all the more hopeless. I was an animal being pushed down a path with a stick and a carrot, only I had successfully transformed the carrot into a second stick so even hope was another way I was beaten down.

And when I was in a relationship with this one person, the person whom I thought was the woman I had been waiting for, whom I would marry and have kids with who looked just like me and her, I suddenly felt that the path I was on was worth traversing. My depression slowly left, my self-hatred was crushed under the feeling of love and being loved by this person, and my anxiety… stayed, actually. But I felt better overall.

So when I found out this person had multiple affairs only a few months before we were supposed to get married… well, something strange happened. I wasn’t a depressed, anxious, self-loathing teen anymore. I didn’t go right back to where I was before things started to get better. I knew this person couldn’t define my own worth, I knew her actions were not my own fault, and I knew that I was strong enough to be well again without her. But I still had this path I knew I had to be on, that everything just had to end up one way and one way only.

So I slipped back into a worse state of mental health, worse than anything I had been in before. But… I knew things were different. I knew I didn’t have to feel the way I had felt for so many years. And I held onto this, even as things got worse and worse, as the pressures of school and later jobs wore me down and down, as I felt my ability to keep things together, to continue to make it through life just like everyone else was somehow able to do, diminished. I got to a point where just getting up in the morning seemed impossible. But I still knew that things… didn’t have to be this way. I knew I didn’t have to continue struggling towards a future I didn’t know if I wanted anymore and hating myself all the way. I knew things could be different, whether that meant a different mental state or a different path entirely, I knew I didn’t have to be trapped anymore.

And that’s where this blog has come in. I’ve been basically trying to write out my experiences as I’ve slowly gotten better, slowly have become more and more hopeful about the freedom of a undefined future.

I’ve also wanted to encourage people with what I’ve written, although I have no idea whether all this talk about myself might be all that helpful to you, whatever you’re going through.

All I can say now is that I firmly believe that God doesn’t have a predestined plan, at least not for my life. I believe that plan is to do what He always does: bring out the good out of the horrible, the unthinkable, the things we’d like to pretend don’t happen to other people and will certainly never happen to us and interrupt the perfect future we’re waiting for.

I’ve talked a lot about my own vulnerabilities, the things that have happened to me, and my own insecurities to the point where I might be oversharing. But in feeling so restricted, I know what it’s like to not have a place to voice things, to articulate what so many people have trouble understanding or may not in the right mindset to hear. I want to see more stories written about going through indescribable things, about going through the hard times that so many people in the church community don’t have answers for.

I hope I can encourage you to share someday, maybe not on a public blog and maybe not even with me, but somewhere where your words can find a home. I hope you can know that just because God doesn’t have a grand plan for your whole life doesn’t mean He’s not there with you at all times. And I hope you know your life, no matter where it goes, no matter what happens in it, is worth living because you’re in it.

 

2 thoughts on “The Story and the Plan

  1. This is beautifully written Clayton…I’m sorry I and many others didn’t reach out to you when you needed it most. I emphasize with a lot of the points you touch on, and could never really put into words. Thanks for opening up and allowing yourself to be vulnerable, it’s definitely something that needs to be read.

    Like

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